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Nine

Murder On The Eightfold Path

The parking lot was full and classes were in session by the time A.J. arrived at Sacred Balance on Thursday morning. It appeared to be business as usual at the studio. She was glad of that, of course, but there was a tiny insecure part of her that wished things werent running quite so smoothly without her.

She was moving slowly, but she was moving, and that was the good news. The bad news was there was no possible way she was going to be able to conduct her classes. That mornings attempt at Sun Salutation had made that much clear.

In a spirit of optimism A.J. had unfolded her yoga mat in the front room with its picture window view of the sun-flushed meadow. It was still a little too chilly these spring mornings to use the back patio as she did in the summer. A.J. sat down on her mat, breathing quietly.

Soft inhalations.

Soft exhalations.

She gathered herself to rise, and her back immediately spasmed. It was all A.J. could do not to cry. Why was this happening to her?

She struggled with her emotions for a few seconds and then was forced to admit that walking up the long staircase at Yoga Meridian had probably not been a good idea, and diving out the window of Dicky Masrais apartment had probably been an even worse one.

Once again she was fighting the very tenets of yoga by trying to force her body to do as she wished rather than what was sensible.

Accordingly she arrived at the studio in a somewhat chastened frame of mind.

Howdy there, stranger! Emma greeted her from behind the front desk when A.J. pushed through the glass doors. We werent expecting you.

Emma was a short, slender, sixty-something black woman. Originally, concerned that Emma would not have the necessary energy or attitude for manning the front desk in a yoga studio, A.J. had been a little hesitant to hire her. It had turned out to be one of the best decisions shed made. She was especially conscious of this as she remembered her visit to Yoga Meridian where every instructor and employee seemed to be under thirty and genetically airbrushed.

I thought Id try to catch up on some paperwork. Im not really here, A.J. replied.

Very metaphysical, Emma said. Do I hold your calls?

No. Put them through.

There were not many calls, however, and A.J. was able to drink her tea and go through her e-mail in relative peace.

The harmonious sounds of cheerful voices and laughter in the main lobby informed her when the first sessions of the morning ended. She glanced up as someone-Lily-tapped on her door.

Ignoring that inward sinking feeling, A.J. smiled. Come in, she invited. How are things going?

Smoothly. Never better, as a matter of fact, Lily said with her usual tact. Belatedly, she asked, Hows your back?

Its getting there.

Lilys dark eyes appraised A.J. shrewdly. Im a little surprised to see you here, frankly. Are you sure this is a wise decision?

I wont be able to teach my courses, obviously, but theres no reason for me not to catch up on the administrative side of things.

Lily nodded, a little frown between her black eyebrows.

Is there a problem? A.J. asked, knowing it was a tactical mistake even as the words left her lips.

Lily drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. Since youve brought it up, yes, she said at last. Dont you think its a little absurd for someone with a bad back to be running a yoga studio? Youre not exactly a great advertisement for us.

A.J. stared at the other woman in disbelief. Absurd?

Lily inclined her head.

First of all, my back is much better these days, thanks to yoga, which should be some of the best advertisement around. Secondly, theres a lot more to the Sacred Balance philosophy than physical fitness.

But thats my point, Lily said in the patient tone of one instructing a not-too-bright student. Diantha left an entire business empire. I dont see why you feel its necessary for you to focus the majority of your attention on the studio when there are so many other divisions that could keep you entertained.

Keep me entertained?

Lily had the grace to look chagrined. Maybe I didnt put that as diplomatically as I could, but we both know that the reality is-thanks to your inheritance-unlike the rest of us, you no longer have to work. So doesnt it make more sense for you to concentrate on some aspect of Dianthas empire that youre better suited for? Your background is marketing. Wouldnt it be better for all concerned if you used those skills to develop and market our sportswear and other merchandise lines-or the plans for organic foods? Those things have all been completely neglected since Dis passing.

It was Aunt Dis wish that we co-manage. That we work together in the studio.

Lily was shaking her head, repudiating this. I loved Di, but theres no question she was eccentric. And leaving you Sacred Balance had to be one of the most eccentric decisions of her life. In fact I firmly believe that if Di had lived-

If I were you, Id stop there.

Lily said coolly, Why? We both know you cant fire me. Were stuck with each other. Until one of us quits.

Ive offered to buy out your interest in the studio.

Im not going to sell out. This studio is my life.

Then Im not sure what it is you want.

The intercom buzzed and Emma said, A.J., your mommas on line one.

Thanks, Emma. A.J. continued to wait for Lily to state the true purpose of her visit, but Lily said nothing, simply staring at her in silent challenge.

The call rang through. After the second ring, A.J. said, I have to take this.

Still weirdly, defiantly mute, Lily rose and left the office. She closed the door with a little bang.

A.J. realized her hands were shaking. Lily got under her skin like no one else on the planet, and A.J. wasnt even sure exactly why. She gave herself a moment and then picked up the phone.

Before she could speak, Elysia said, Maddie has invited us to stay the weekend.

Her thoughts still on the argument with Lily, it took A.J. a few moments to register what her mother was saying. Medea Sutherland has-Mother, what did you tell her?

Nothing any reasonable person could possibly object to, Elysia protested. I merely said shed been on my mind lately, which is perfectly true. She popped out with the invitation with nary a nudge from me. I think shes lonely.

Be careful what you wish for, Maddie, thought A.J.

What did she say about Dicky?

Nothing. I didnt ask, and she didnt volunteer any information.

But thats strange. Is it possible the police dont know about her?

I dont know.

A.J. gnawed uneasily on her lip. Have you heard from Mr. Meagher?

No. I was thinking we could drive down tomorrow-Friday afternoon.

A.J. was shaking her head, rejecting this idea instantly. I cant just take off for the weekend.

I dont see why not. You cant be much use at the studio right now.

A.J. controlled her instinctive response. Thank you, Mother. I dont just conduct classes, you know.

But your minions are so well-trained, pumpkin. And its nice for them to be out from under your iron fist once in a while.

My what?

Elysia chuckled.

Who wouldnt be looking forward to a weekend of this? And under the roof of a potential murderess, to boot. Mother, I dont think youve thought this through. I know shes an old friend, but what if Medea did kill Dicky?

Clearly amused, Elysia returned, You dont remember Maddie very well, do you?

I dont remember her at all. Ive seen her movies, though.

Then youll have to take my word for it. Maddie is no more a murderess than I am. But keeping me safe gives you an added incentive to come on this little jaunt, yes?

As dearly as A.J. longed to say no, Elysia had a point, and unfortunately it seemed only too apparent that A.J. was not necessary to the smooth operation of Sacred Balance.

What time tomorrow? she grumbled.

Lets say eleven. Ill treat you to lunch and we can discuss our strategy. Elysia was ever gracious in victory.

A.J. agreed morosely, hung up, and went to find Lily. She found that the other woman had left the studio for an early break, and thwarted once again, A.J. returned to her own office.

There had to be more she could do even if she was sitting on the sidelines. A.J. opened her laptop again and went into her mail program hunting for the e-mails her mother had sent while on vacation in Egypt. She found them without too much difficulty and read over them, curiously inspecting the attached photos with new attention.

Even now they did not seem particularly revealing. The main point of interest from A.J.s perspective was that Elysia never mentioned Dicky, although he appeared in picture after picture.

Perfectly symmetrical bone structure, a wide, white grin, shining black eyes. No question Dakarai Massri had been a very handsome young man; A.J. had to give him that much.

She tried to cast her memory back to Elysias first mention of Dicky. She thought it had been shortly after her mothers return from Egypt, but that had been a difficult and stressful time-right after Nicole Manning had been killed. A.J.s memories were fuzzy; shed had a lot on her mind. She recalled she had commented on the attractive young man who appeared in so many of Elysias photos and Elysia had been vague-deliberately so, A.J. realized now. One thing she did remember was that Elysia had mentioned Dicky working for the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Had he left the SCA after his decision to move to the States or had something happened at the SCA to precipitate that decision?

A.J. initiated a web search. She found the SCA without much trouble. It appeared to be a completely legitimate branch of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture originally established in 1859. Located in Cairo, the SCA was responsible for protecting and managing the cultural heritage of Egypt. That meant everything from restoring historical monuments to the recovery of stolen antiquities; she read an article on the SCAs attempts to have the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti returned from the foreign museums currently housing them.

It sounded like important work. Not the kind of profession a scheming blackmailer would opt for, but perhaps the SCA had merely been his day job.

Locating a phone number at the bottom of the official website for the SCA, A.J. spent the next few hours trying to find someone who knew of Dakarai Massri. Given the six-hour time difference, some long distance problems, and a bit of failure-to-communicate, she didnt get far beyond verifying that Dicky had indeed been employed by the SCA for a time.

By the time she was finally willing to concede defeat for the day, it was after two oclock and she was starving. She went next door to see if Lily was back from lunch. Lily had returned but she was upstairs teaching another class.

A.J. decided she could wait to have another unpleasant run-in with her co-manager until Monday. Packing her laptop, she went to the front lobby to tell Emma she would be out for the rest of the week.

As she knew she wouldnt feel like cooking, she decided to stop for lunch on her way out of town, pulling into the parking lot of the Blue Bridge Pub, a new place she and Jake had talked about trying out.

The pub was surprisingly crowded-although maybe it wasnt that surprising, as any new restaurant in Stillbrook tended to draw a lot of business for the first few weeks after opening.

A.J. was led to a comfortable high-back, leather-lined booth against the wall. She glanced over the menu, ordered Greek spinach salad with feta cheese and a hot oil dressing, and then studied the artfully placed copper dishes and molds adorning the dark-paneled walls while she waited for her meal.

Her idle gaze fell on a familiar set of shoulders and sleek, dark head. She registered the fact that the shoulders and head belonged to Jake at approximately the same moment she realized that he was having lunch with a slender, attractive young woman about her own age.

It gave her an odd jolt. Not that there was anything wrong with Jake having lunch with someone of the female persuasion. She certainly had male friends who she occasionally lunched with. She tried to think of one and came up with Simon Crider, one of the instructors at the studio. Well, and Andy, her ex-husband. Jake hadnt objected too much when Andy had spent several weeks with A.J. the previous summer while he was going through a rough patch.

She tried to scrutinize Jakes companion without appearing to stare.

The woman had wide light eyes and brown hair artfully streaked with blonde. Her smile was very white. She smiled a lot. While she was not pretty exactly, she had a certain wholesome sex appeal.

A.J. watched them for a few seconds with an odd, uneasy sensation. She told herself not to be an idiot, but there was nothing like having been the victim of a cheating husband to hone a womans instincts, and even from behind, watching the curve of Jakes lean cheek crease in a slight smile, watching the attentive tilt of his head as he listened to the woman, A.J. knew this was not a long lost sister or a former partner from his days in uniform.

Of course, what she should do-the normal thing-would be to get up and walk right over there and say hello.

So why wasnt she doing that?

The waitress arrived with her lunch, and A.J. managed to eat a few bites of salad before her gaze was drawn inexorably back to Jake and his companion. They were laughing. The woman reached over and rested her hand briefly on Jakes arm.

A wave of cold nausea washed through A.J. She told herself not to overreact, but she knew her instinct was not wrong. There was definitely something between them.

She tried to decide what to do. If the situation between her and Jake were as usual, she would simply go over there and say hello. But with matters strained as they were

As this thought took form in A.J.s mind, Jake-as though feeling the gaze burning between his shoulder blades-glanced around. He did a double take. And then he rose and came over to A.J.s table.

A.J. dredged up a smile.

Jake didnt even try. I didnt see you come in, he said. He didnt seem guilty, exactly, but he did look uncomfortable.

You were otherwise occupied. She winced internally at both the words and the light, cool tone. The last thing she wanted to appear was jealous or insecure. She and Jake did not have a commitment. They didnt even have an agreement not to see other people.

Im having lunch with an old friend.

A.J. considered and discarded a variety of responses. She settled on the all-purpose, Oh?

Belatedly, though only by a second or two, Jake asked, Would you like to join us for dessert?

I dont think so. Somehow, despite A.J.s best intentions, it came out sounding like an action heros line seconds before he blew the bad guy away.

She couldnt read Jakes expression at all, and he seemed to be having a similar problem with her. He said, Well, at least let me introduce you.

Of course! It came out far too brightly, but she was oversteering, trying to make up for the snippiness of her earlier response.

Scrubbing her teeth with her tongue in search of any stray bits of spinach, A.J. slipped out of the booth and followed Jake through the crowded tables.

How is your back? he asked as an afterthought. Are you back at work now?

Its better, she said. There wasnt time for more as they had reached Jakes table.

Jakes companion smiled confidently up at A.J. Her eyes were a strikingly light shade somewhere between green and blue.

A.J. this is J- Jake broke off, looking confused, and the woman smiled that frank, white smile and offered her hand.

Francesca Cox. But everyone calls me Chess.

Nice to meet you, Chess. Chess? What kind of nickname was Chess? Affected was what it was.

Ive heard so much about you. Chess was smiling.

Maybe it was intended as a pleasantry-well, it was almost certainly intended as a pleasantry, what was the matter with her? She was not this insecure. But it did bother A.J. that Chess apparently knew all about her, and shed had no idea of Chesss existence until that instant.

A.J. asked with all the cordiality she could muster, Are you visiting or are you new to Stillbrook?

Ive just moved here, yes.

How nice! Welcome to the neighborhood. Welcome to the neighborhood? Break out the zippered cardigans. A.J. had morphed into Mister Rogers.

Its a lovely little town, Chess said. She smiled at Jake. He, meanwhile, was doing his best impersonation of one of those Easter Island statues. Why did he look so so stony if everything was on the up and up?

It is lovely, isnt it? You should see it in the autumn. Where are you from originally? A.J. inquired.

Chesss eyes flickered. Oh, I move around a lot. I admit thats one of the charms of a small town like yours. The idea of putting down roots, of getting to know your neighbors, of building a real home: its very alluring.

A.J. heard herself give one of those terse murmur-laughs that sounded uncannily like Elysia when she was displeased and barely trying to hide it.

What do you do, A.J.?

Apparently Jake hadnt shared all the pertinent details if Chess didnt know something this basic. Then again, she was probably just making conversation. Someone needed to.

A.J. replied, I run a yoga studio.

Really? Now I wouldnt have guessed that.

What do you do, Chess?

Im a travel writer.

That sounds like fun, A.J. said politely.

It is mostly.

A.J. checked her wristwatch. Gosh, is it that time? Ive got to pay my check and run.

Literally.

Jake said woodenly, Ill walk you out.

Nice to meet you, A.J., Chess said cordially.

A.J. paid her check and walked out of the dining room with Jake a silent presence behind her.

She knew it was unreasonable to be angry. She reminded herself that they didnt-did not-have an exclusive arrangement.

As they reached the lobby front door, she said, Chess seems pleasant. How long have you known her?

Never one to waste time on polite chitchat, Jake said, Ive been meaning to call.

A.J. couldnt read anything in his expression. Well, things are weird right now. I realize that better than anyone.

They are, yeah. He raked an impatient hand through his hair. Look, we need to talk. Are you going to be home tomorrow night?

She hadnt made her mind up about going with Elysia until that very instant, but A.J. suddenly realized how much she did not have the emotional energy for whatever this talk was about. Actually, Im going out of town.

His face tightened. Come on, A.J.

Im not playing games, she said. Im going out of town with Mother.

How far out of town?

Sussex County. Andover, to be precise. Dont worry. Shes not trying to make a break for it. Shes going to stay with a friend for the weekend, thats all. She added, If you want to talk, we can always use the phone.

She didnt like the expression that crossed his face. This might be a little complicated for a phone call.

Then I guess Ill see you when I get back.

Jake nodded, looked away. Staring into the distance he said tersely, Im not enjoying this, you know.

I can see it. That makes two of us.


Eight | Murder On The Eightfold Path | c